DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Richard Childress wasn’t about to lie. He was a bundle of nerves last Sunday when his 23-year-old grandson, Austin Dillon, took to the 2.5-mile tri-oval at Daytona International Speedway for a qualifying run at the pole position of the 56th Daytona 500.
Perched atop one of his team’s haulers, the 68-year-old owner of Richard Childress Racing could barely contain his concern — or his emotions — as Dillon, behind the wheel of the No. 3 Chevrolet made famous by the late Dale Earnhardt, took his crack at the pole.
“The funny thing is there was a buildup to it,’’ said Dillon, who became the fifth rookie driver — and second in as many years after Danica Patrick did so last season — to capture the pole for NASCAR’s season opener with a lap of 196.019 miles per hour.
Sensing his grandfather’s growing anxiety before his pole run, Dillon along with crew chief Gil Martin tried to reassure Childress.
“Me and Gil said, ‘Calm down, you’re nervous,’ ’’ Dillon said. “He said, ‘I’m not nervous. I’m concerned.’ Well, we’re on the pole, and things can calm down a little bit until Thursday.’’
That’s when Dillon will lead the field in the first 150-mile qualifying heat in the Budweiser Duel. No doubt the pressure will begin to mount again, but Childress wasn’t able to fully decompress Sunday until after Clint Bowyer was the last to make a qualifying attempt and went 20th.
Childress marked the occasion with an exuberant fist pump. It was followed by a deep sigh of relief and a weary but prideful smile after three of his cars qualified in the top 10.
Dillon was followed by teammates Ryan Newman (fifth) and Paul Menard (10th).
“I’ll tell you, it was like somebody had lifted a load off my shoulders, because you dream about this,’’ Childress said of his grandson’s feat. “When we came down here for testing [in January], we were fast and I thought it would be nice to sit on the pole, but you don’t know what everybody is going to bring back.
“Honestly, I thought Paul Menard was our best car,’’ Childress added. “With all the numbers we had seen and everything, it looked like he was going to be our best shot at winning the pole.
“But then you start dreaming, ‘What would it be like if we could win the pole, and win it with the 3?’ And here we are today and we’ve done it, it’s just amazing.’’
While Earnhardt’s legion of loyal fans continue to associate the No. 3 with Earnhardt, it still belonged to Childress, who carefully maintained its sanctity by not running it since Earnhardt’s death at the 2001 Daytona 500. But Dillon seemed to put his own stamp on it by putting it back atop the scoring pylon at Daytona.
“I think it just adds to Dale’s legacy, because that’s what we wanted to do,’’ said Childress, who was the car owner of record for six of Earnhardt’s seven NASCAR titles, the last coming in 1994. “But Austin wants to build his own legacy now. He has an opportunity to go out and see what he can do in it.’’
But, Childress said, the decision to bring back the No. 3 was “emotional,’’ he said.
“It wasn’t something we took for granted,’’ Childress said. “It had to be the right person at the right time and he’s run [the] 3 since he was that big,’’ Childress said, lowering his hand to his knee.
“He’s won championships, a lot of races in dirt and Legends — everything he’s ever driven in, he’s won it,’’ Childress said of his grandson.
A familiar pattern in Dillon’s career path seemed to emerge when he won the 2010 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Rookie of the Year award, then came back the following season and became the youngest Truck Series champion at age 20.
In 2012, Dillon, driving the No. 3 Chevy Camaro, won NASCAR Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year honors and the following season won a Nationwide Series championship. Dillon’s 21-year-old brother, Ty, will drive the car this season in the Nationwide Series for their grandfather’s team.
If Austin were to sweep both rookie honors and the Sprint Cup championship in his debut this season, he would become the first driver in history to win titles in all three of NASCAR’s premier touring series.
“The rookie crop is the strongest I can remember for many, many years with Kyle Larson and Justin Allgaier, all the different drivers who are in it this year,’’ Childress said. “That’s going to be the challenge right there — to go out and win that [rookie title].
“But Dale Earnhardt was the last one to do it, to win both,’’ Childress added, referring to Earnhardt’s rookie title in 1979 and his first NASCAR championship in 1980. “So it’ll be interesting. [Austin], he’ll be racing hard. He’s a hard racer.’’
Dillon has energized not only his grandfather and a legion of No. 3 fans, but also a team that underwent an extreme makeover with Kevin Harvick’s departure to Stewart-Haas Racing. Harvick was the last driver to deliver RCR a victory in the Daytona 500 in 2007.
“You’ve got to have those blinders on, because you want to stay focused and run well,’’ Dillon said. “Because you want to perform in the No. 3, and everybody wants to see it perform, and that’s why my grandfather is always concerned.’’
But with all the pressure-filled weeks he’s had to endure in his career, Childress wasn’t sure if he or his grandson would be feeling the pressure more this week as teams make their final preparations for Sunday’s 500.
“I don’t know,’’ he said. “We know what we’ve got to do. We know what tasks are in front of us . . . I’ve been here many, many years, probably since the ’60s, and this one is going to be special because my grandson is in it and he’ll be starting from the pole in the 3.
“But at the end of the day, we all know what we’re here to do, and that’s to go out and put on a great show for the fans and try to win that race.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.